No stranger to existential, impressionistic cinema, Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World”) recurrently references the Book of Job during this challenging cinematic exploration of the wondrous origin and meaning of life:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
While Malick delves into the celestial creation of the universe and its chaotic evolution, including dinosaurs near a riverbed, his earth-bound narrative, set in 1950s Texas, revolves around stern, pious, domineering Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), his spiritual, nurturing wife (Jessica Chastain) and the bucolic childhood of their three sons, one of whom tragically, inexplicably dies at age 19. Much restless reverie is presented from the viewpoint of Jack (Hunter McCracken), the vulnerable eldest child, who grows up to be a meditative Houston architect (Sean Penn). His sensitive, tormented recollections of fractured family relationships and tension-filled interactions within their ordinary Craftsman-style house and roaming their suburban neighborhood are evocative of a time, a place and an American cultural ethos.
As the intimidating father, Brad Pitt delivers an indelible performance, while Jessica Chastain exudes ethereal compassion. And the young boys (McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan) exude naturalistic exuberance.
In accordance with its episodic, elliptical structure and minimal snippets of dialogue, its essence is elusive, as befits its enigmatic, poetic style, illuminated by Emmanuel Lubezki’s spectacular landscape/cityscape cinematography, Jack Fisk’s sprawling production design and Alexandre Desplat’s sublime, requiem-filled score. But cosmic comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” are inevitable, if only because Malick used Kubrick’s special-effects creator Douglas Trumbull as visual consultant.
While his emotionally turbulent glimpses of an intriguing, interconnected afterlife are problematical, working with five different editors, Terrence Malick seems a bit self-indulgent, stretching patience and endurance, reiterating his metaphysical themes with repetitive imagery.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Tree of Life” is an illuminating, insightful 9. It’s a stunning, surreal, extraordinary epic that will dazzle yet perhaps dumbfound art-house audiences.